Gideon Levy’s attempt to find a silver lining in the current political reality is undoubtedly admirable, particularly in light of the stagnation and lack of a horizon of hope – or a leadership willing to present one – in recent years. Levy traveled as far as South Africa to learn lessons relevant to the resolution of the conflict in our region and write about them in his columns "What Israel could be like" (Haaretz, April 21) and “Like Israel, Palestinians must also learn the lessons of South Africa,” (Haaretz, April 25, 2013).
- Breaking the chains of South Africa's apartheid, and marching on
- Like Israel, Palestinians must also learn the lessons of South Africa
- What Israel could be like
- My friend Mandela
The case of South Africa is indeed inspiring any way you look at it – politically, socially or culturally. And the people who effected change there are admirable. But Levy’s attempt to make a historical comparison between South Africa and Israel, while an interesting journalistic exercise, is lacking as far as political analysis is concerned.
At the end of "What Israel could be like," Levy acknowledges the gap between the leaders who led the revolution in South Africa and those who rule the lives of the two peoples in our region. This is too big a “but” to ignore. In fact, it is big enough to nullify the assessments that come before it in the column.
History shows that to liberate an oppressed people, there must be a rare combination of a “great soul” from among the oppressed (a Gandhi or Nelson Mandela) and a courageous and honest political genius from the camp of the oppressor (for example, Frederik Willem de Klerk). But that is not enough. A common fundamental ethos is needed – one that both sides can unite around – otherwise there is no mid-point where they can meet. Levy forgot one man and one organization that served an almost singular function in reconciliation in South Africa – Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Anglican Church. In the waning days of apartheid in South Africa, religion played a pivotal role in political reform.
Against apartheid and demonization of the other (on both sides), common faith stood as a bulwark: “We are all children of Jesus,” Tutu said. And indeed most of the inhabitants of South Africa were and are Anglican Christians. It is not surprising that the last pockets of opposition to change came from among the Calvinist and Huguenots communities, the descendants of the Africaans-speaking Boers. Tutu was also the man behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” which encouraged those who had committed crimes (on both sides) to confess in exchange for full judicial pardons. Tutu said that to heal South Africa, the pus had to first be drained from its wounds. That idea expressed a faith in human beings and the power of forgiveness that has roots that are more religious than political.
It was difficult to watch the elderly Tutu and the other judges in the commission break down and weep over the testimony they heard and to hear heartrending cries from others in the room. The commission was a kind of national therapy, and more than judicial pardons, it granted collective catharsis. It was more of a church than a courtroom. Its contribution to the healing and unifying of the various parts of society in South Africa was invaluable.
I remember well, as a youth in Johannesburg at the end of apartheid (in the early 1990s), the feelings in those days. Today, I sense very well the gap between those feelings and the ones engendered by the situation in our region. Apartheid was not brought down by an external force. It was dismantled bit by bit, slowly and methodically from within. It is hard to forget the lively discussions in school classrooms a moment before the referendum in early 1993. In that referendum, white people had to decide whether to continue the reforms of the de Klerk government (and ultimately hold general, multi-racial elections). The response, by a resounding majority, was “yes.” It is hard to see how the processes of extremism and nationalism in Israeli society could yield a “yes” to such an initiative (both sides have done little to build mutual faith).
And so Levy is also mistaken when he proposes to the Palestinians the artful (and baseless) solution of demanding the establishment of a state of all its citizens. The key to change is in Israeli society, whether it is a two-state or one-state solution. What is missing is hope, faith in the future and love of humanity.
Unfortunately, not only do the Palestinians not have a Mandela and the Israelis not have a de Klerk, religion, in the case of the Middle East, is as divisive as nationality. Gone are the days when the struggle was between two secular nationalist movements over borders and self-determination. Religion has leached into the political vacuum on both sides and deepened the chasm instead of bridging it.
Judaism and Islam have the power to formulate a message of compassion and inclusion, based on what they share (the holy places, love of the land, belief in one God). The late Rabbi Menachem Froman and representatives of Sufi Islam have done this. But in our region they are a minority (and some even see them as a deranged minority).
If there is a personal lesson I learned as a secular young person in South Africa, it is the importance of religion and its power to effect political change, both in generating conflict and as a powerful tool in overcoming conflict. Where statesmanship lacks the power to present a rational solution, and religious figures permit suicide terror attacks on the one hand and the blasphemy of “price tag” attacks on the other hand, Levy’s articles (as challenging and moving as they are) are no more than wishful thinking. They are optimistic texts that manage mainly to depress us by throwing in our face the magnitude of the gap in consciousness and politics between the present-day Middle East and South Africa of the 1990s.
The writer was in advertising and is now a strategic consultant.